Initially published on August 28, 2007 on flushinguniversity.com
Though I’ve followed the Mets since their first game in 1962, I’ve forgotten a lot about those early days. I’d forgotten that the Mets played their home games in the Polo Grounds until Shea Stadium was ready to house them; I’d forgotten that in 1996 the Mets traded Jeff Kent for Carlos Baerga, another disaster of a deal that the Mets have done too often; and I’d forgotten that Keith Hernandez played first for them with more finesse than anyone either before or after though John Olerud, who played three seasons for the Mets in the late 1990s, won three Gold Glove awards after he returned to the American League.
Those memories have revived thanks to Tales from the Mets Dugout, Bruce Markusen’s first book about the Mets. Previously, Markusen had written books about Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Ted Williams, and Charlie Finley’s A’s.
Originally published in 2005, Sports Publishing recently released the paperback version. It’s part of their series of collections of short shorts about baseball teams. Besides the Mets, the series includes the Cardinals, the Royals, the Red Sox, and the Yankees. But it’s the Mets book that grabbed my attention.
The book’s 185 pages won’t satisfy only readers like me who’ve lived through the Mets timeline. It will also fill a void in the knowledge of Mets fans who joined the club at a later date.
Tales from the Mets Dugout is a book of “threads” tied together by one of the more amazing teams in sports history. It’s the team that returned dignity to those New York baseball fans who could never root for the Yankees. It’s the team that returned to New York what both the city’s and major league’s power brokers should never have allowed to leave: National League baseball.
The book is a browser’s delight. You can read its stories, which fall into two categories, short and short short, in whatever order pleases you.
The book begins with a chapter on “The Early Years,” weaves its way through the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s and, like a baseball game, ends in the ninth with the chapter “The Magic of 2006.”
One story that jogged my memory was about Ron Swoboda, a Mets outfielder in the early years who caused fans to hold their breath whenever a ball was hit in his direction, especially a fly ball. Surprising, as Swoboda’s career progressed, he metamorphosized into a decent fielder.
Another story that could easily have had disastrous consequences had a happy ending. If the Atlanta Braves hadn’t broken a league rule in 1966 by signing Tom Seaver before his college season was over, he would have been a Brave. Because of an error by the Braves front office, Commissioner Eckert invited the other major league teams to participate in a lottery for Seaver’s services. Three chose to do so, the Indians, the Phillies, and the Mets. By luck alone the Mets acquired the rights to Seaver.
Seaver was one of the best pitchers I’ve ever observed. His control was as amazing as was his dedication to the game. I can’t imagine how many fewer games the Mets would have won if they couldn’t send Seaver to the mound every fourth game. Worse, if he had joined the Phillies, he would have been paired with Steve Carlton. That would have been a terrific twosome for Phillies fans and a terrible twosome for Mets fans.
But it’s the behind the scenes “secrets” that the Mets beat writers didn’t include in their write-ups that most interested me. The only chapter with just a year as its heading, 1973, presented the real reason why the Mets traded Tug McGraw, and it had nothing to do with his performance on the field. One word describes the Mets action: shameful. And another story revealed a blockbuster trade that the Mets almost, but didn’t make. They came thisclose to trading Tom Seaver for the Dodgers Don Sutton.
While the McGraw tale made me question the competence of one-time Mets chairman M. Donald Grant, the story about Danny Frisella made me wish the Mets had given Frisella a better chance to show his competence. I didn’t remember Frisella, a reliever who pitched briefly for the Mets in the early 1970s. But I will now after reading how his major league career ended abruptly on January 1, 1977 and what happened three months later. In one sense, major leaguers are special. But in a deeper way, they’re just human beings like the rest of us who, unlike most of us, are able to spend a fraction of their lives wearing a big league uniform.
Elliot Maddox, in his tale titled “Misery for Maddox,” confirmed my suspicion about the competence of the Mets’ front office during Grant’s tenure. According to Maddox, “They didn’t really know what they were doing … especially that first group.” The first group included M. Donald Grant.
I found the longest tale a bit long. Markusen devoted more than three pages to Willie Montanez and his antics on the field. Montanez was a Met whose name had slipped from my memory decades ago as quickly as did his antics after I read about them.
Montanez’s two seasons with the Mets were miniscule in number compared with Ed Kranepool’s team-leading 18.
The book contains one story about Kranepool, and that one contains an error. Markusen wrote that Kranepool played for the Mets through the ‘69 season; however, his career with them ended with the 1979 season.
It also doesn’t mention Kranepool’s unique swinging style. After taking a full swing at a pitch, he’d switch into reverse and “swing,” at what seemed like the same speed, in the opposite direction, retracing his bat’s initial path.
Tales from the Mets Dugout ends with a story about one of the more amazing plays in the Amazin’s history. In the seventh game of the 2006 National League Championship Series, Mets left fielder Endy Chavez made a catch that will long linger in the memories of those Mets fans fortunate enough to see it. It was a fitting way to end a book that had helped me to relive the Mets’ amazing past.
Tales from the Mets Dugout is available
– in major chain and independent bookstores everywhere.
– directly from the publisher by calling toll-free 24-hours-a-day: 1-877-424-2665.
– online at www.SportsPublishingLLC.com.